Lenten Blog Tour: Paradise Now

The following post is part of the Lenten Blog Tour, which features Lenten reflections from 41 bloggers using scripture passages from the new Common English Bible translation. The CEB New Testament is out now, and the full Bible will be published later this year.

"Gordon's Calvary" at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem: A proposed site for Golgotha, "The Skull."

Reflection Text: Luke 23:32-43

They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”

The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”

One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

As most of my friends and parishioners know (and some of my blog readers are learning), I have become one of those annoying clergy people who tells everyone that they ought to go to the Holy Land if they ever get a chance. I say that as a former skeptic: you couldn’t have convinced me before I left how meaningful the trip would be.

My favorite places were those in which we could say with some certainty that Jesus walked here. Jesus healed here. Jesus spoke these words here. Sometimes I would even settle for “in this general vicinity.”

One of my favorite moments was captured in the 20-second video clip below. It shows the ancient synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. (It’s now part of a church.) It’s not quite the original synagogue—the walls were rebuilt in the fourth century—but the floor was original to the first century.

As I stood in this small room, I thought, How cool is this? It’s very likely that Jesus walked on this floor, possibly even mounted these steps, when, in Luke 4, he read the words from Isaiah that inaugurated his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it” [Luke 4:18-21 CEB].

The word I want to emphasize here is today. Jesus uses this same word in only two other places in Luke’s gospel: when he forgives the wee little tax-collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19:9 (“Today, salvation has come to this household”) and in today’s scripture from the cross: “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

As I’ve reflected on these words of Jesus—surely among the most beloved in all of scripture—I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the popular interpretation of them. I don’t think Jesus simply meant today as in “later this evening when the Roman soldiers break your kneecaps and you suffocate.” By all means, “heaven when you die” is a comforting thought—and I believe strongly in future resurrection. But as I wrote the other day and as I said in a recent sermon, heaven isn’t consolation for a life poorly lived on this side of heaven.

If Jesus’ words only mean “heaven when you die,” then this scripture feels like the cheapest of cheap grace: As if the criminal on the cross were receiving a “get out of hell free” card at the end of his life. After all, he got to live life as he pleased, without giving a thought to the hard work of discipleship. At least until nearly the last possible moment—after which he got heaven thrown in. See what I mean? Cheap grace.

No, since grace isn’t cheap, surely this isn’t what this passage means. As with Jesus’ two other great “today” pronouncements in Luke, I believe Jesus means today as in right now—from this moment forward, starting now and lasting for eternity.

You can blame William Willimon for this drastic change in my thinking. He writes,

I believe that if Jesus had been walking along some Galilean road in the bright sunshine, rather than hanging here on the cross before a darkening sky, and if Jesus and the thief had had many years of life on this earth still ahead of them, I believe that this conversation would have gone exactly the same way. ¶ For when Jesus speaks of ‘Paradise,’ he is not talking so much of a place where they may go someday, as a relationship that they entered today.

In other words, paradise now. Do you hear the challenge in these words?

No waiting around for paradise. No “flying away” to a far removed heaven. No “opiate of the masses” here, thank you very much. If we are in a saving relationship with God through Christ, heaven is now—not in all its fullness, of course. But it’s enough for now.

I believe this describes Paul’s attitude in his letter to the Philippians. As he’s writing that letter, he’s facing a very harsh imprisonment (in Ephesus, I think), and he’s not entirely sure he’ll survive it. But he’s torn between wanting to continue his ministry or be with the Lord in the fullness of heaven. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil 1:21). After struggling aloud with the question, he decides it’s preferable to stay alive and continue his kingdom work on earth.

Regardless, we get the sense from the tone of the letter that Paul doesn’t view death as any kind of dramatic transition. After all, he’s already with Christ. At best, he feels a holy ambivalence about death. And isn’t this true of the holiest people we know?

Years ago, I had a parishioner in my little church in Forsyth, Georgia, named Darlene who had lived for years with terminal cancer. She was well-prepared to die and had been for some time. She knew that her life and future were safely in God’s hands. She was at peace. She was almost embarrassed to talk about her imminent death. To her, it was inconsequential—except her concerns for loved ones she would leave behind.

I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, but I hope to be some day. Darlene’s and St. Paul’s attitude seem exactly right to me.

Paul goes even further in describing the present reality of eternal life in a couple of other letters. In Romans 6:1-4, for example, he uses resurrection as a metaphor for life right now. Although, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15, resurrection hasn’t happened to us yet, we have the power to live as if it has already happened. In Ephesians 2:5-6, he goes further: not only are we raised with Christ right now, we’re even seated at the right hand of God with Christ!

Please allow me to peak ahead to Easter and ask: How does Christ’s resurrection change our lives today? What hope, confidence, and peace does the resurrection offer us today? What can we do—alongside our brothers and sisters in our own faith community—to share the power of Christ’s resurrection with others?

Who are the people in our lives who need to hear Jesus’ life-changing words, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise”?

William Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 20. Emphasis mine.

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